New Partnerships for Transnational Education

David Willetts, the UK Universities Minister, advised its universities to go overseas in search of students. (EducationInvestor, 17th May 2012) Whether he, like his other colleagues in Government, seems to think that Britain is besieged by student migrants, or this is a statement of exasperation and frustrated acknowledgement that the current immigration policies will drive away the international students, is a matter of conjecture. He may draw comfort from the available data, which showed that in 2011, the 5% growth in the number of students coming to UK (total number 428,225) was far outstripped by a 23% growth in the number of students studying overseas for a British degree (total number 503,795), and particularly in programmes delivered through partner organisations (a growth of 40%) [Source: UKCISA]. He may also point to various experiments in overseas campuses, the most celebrated being by the University of Nottingham's China campus, which, beyond its symbolic value, was underwhelming in most respects, and that UK universities are finally waking up to the new realities of the marketplace and treading into waters where no one has gone before (like creating private subsidiaries, as Times Higher Education reports).

It may sound strange that a government which is pleading its case for extraordinarily lax regulations in order to prevent its banks from shifting their HQs abroad is so relaxed about its universities going to another country. Universities are, in their current form, are intensely national organisations; I shall even claim that these were, alongside national newspapers, the building blocks of modern nations. They are grounded by the nature of their funding, mostly from the local and national governments, and tied to the land they operate in, much more than any commercial entity. Most universities put their local and national objectives, be it in research or in training youngsters, ahead of their global character: For all the talk of globalisation, the greatest task of modern universities is the enhancement of national competitiveness. Cutting their funding, squeezing them out of their most profitable students and asking them to go abroad will leave them without their soul. Or, at the least, turn them into a very different organisation.

However, it is important to recognise that we have reached a defining point for transnational education. It will no longer be what it was thus far - getting students to sign up for courses in rich countries, mostly, in the hope that this will find them a way to settlement and life in a rich country. First, the rich/poor balance seems to be shifting. It is harder to settle in rich countries now than it ever was, and most countries are keen on cutting off the automatic linkage between studying and settling. Besides, the students from the developing world, particularly from BRIC countries, are increasingly aware that their local perspectives are at least as important as those offered by the universities in other countries. And, at the mass end of higher education, which is a very twentieth century phenomenon and aimed at the creation of a large enough professional workforce for the industrial machine in the West, there is not much for the developing country students to take home: The offering itself is geared towards the lower echelons of the host country workforce, and once that door is firmly shut, there is almost nothing for the travelling students.

Therefore, Willetts' suggestion may be pragmatic (though not practical) that the universities should find ways to create a new model of international delivery reaching out to students in different countries. This has to be more than online delivery, which we have seen a lot of; it does not seem to work with traditional undergraduate students, the mainstay of the Higher Education system. Besides, one has to work around two very different problems: First, how does one go around the various national boundaries around Higher Education, as most developing countries tend to protect the territory as stringently as they can; and second, how to make the academic staff from the rich country university to adopt the mindset of a nimble commercial supplier, who often wins because of adaptability rather than any inherent superiority.

There are some emergent models to go around the first problem, where the courses are usually locally accredited. This is often a costly and lengthy process, and universities are queasy about submitting themselves to two different quality control regimes. What is completely natural in one place may cause trouble in another: I remember talking to a Middlesex University academic whose journalism courses had to tread a very subtle line between maintaining free speech and students rights while avoiding blasphemy and other seditious offences in their campus in the Gulf region. Often, the solution is to find the right partner - who runs an locally accredited programme, which is then mapped on to the curriculum - though finding the right partner remains a huge challenge, given the academic management structure of the universities and the subsequent steeped-in notion that quality means 'nothing should ever be done for the first time'.

The second issue on the table, how to make the academics nimble and responsive, leads to out-management of the partnership, not quite the serial franchising, where a partner closer home can builds partnerships in another country, thus saving the commercial and operational aspects of the relationship from bureaucratic big freeze, while maintaining it within one quality control regime. The actual delivery organisation may still have a locally accredited qualification, and thus be the right side of local law; the students may often have to take in additional modules, side-by-side with their regular course of studies, to attain the international qualification. These relationships introduce two levels of partnerships between the student and the university: That of delivery partner and a facilitation partner, which would be a strict no-no going by the book. However, this is exactly how the growth of transnational education is being achieved, and each of these partners, mostly commercial organisations, bringing to table some elements of value - the delivery partner is offering local knowledge and student contacts, the facilitating partner is contextualising the relationships and keeping it relevant, from the students point of view, and consistent with the university's home country offering.

The UK academia, an intensely local affair (their international reach being, often, a red herring, note the demise of once-mighty University of Wales, with more than 120 international partnerships, in a matter of days, over a local political dispute), is only lately waking up to the possibilities of transnational education. They are infinitely constrained: The universities are often quite small (with balance sheets of £150 million or so), dependent on public funding, and led by people with a background in local government or academia. This is hardly the foundation one can build a successful international engagement on. The only way for these institutions to take advantage of the new wave of transnational education, and to save themselves from the seismic policy shifts in the UK both with regard to local and international students, is to innovate the way they work with other institutions, often commercial entities. Beyond the rhetoric of overseas campuses, this work has only just began.


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